Public Relations Case Study: Seaworld vs. Blackfish

Was the 2013 film ‘Blackfish’ an investigative documentary or inaccurate and dishonest?

In July 2010, the fitness/travel/outdoor adventure magazine Outside published an in-depth research article written by Tim Zimmerman regarding the events surrounding the sudden death of SeaWorld Trainer Dawn Brancheau. The article, entitled ‘The Killer in the Pool’, discussed how and possibly why Brancheau was aggressively attacked and killed by the whale Tilikum in late February of 2010 (Zimmerman, 2010). The 8,000+ word exposition sparked a fiery passion within one independent filmmaker and has led to a complete public relations inferno for SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment.

In the fall of 2013, Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s controversial documentary Blackfish was picked up from the Sundance Film Festival by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films and put on display for the entire world to see (Renninger, 2013). The film’s website states that it “tells the story of Tilikum, a performing killer whale that killed several people while in captivity” (Blackfish, 2013).

[The film] compiles shocking footage and emotional interviews to explore the creature’s extraordinary nature, the species’ cruel treatment in captivity, the lives and losses of the trainers and the pressures brought to bear by the multi-billion dollar sea-park industry. This emotionally wrenching, tautly structured story challenges us to consider our relationship to nature and reveals how little we humans have learned from these highly intelligent and enormously sentient fellow mammals (Blackfish, 2013).

Initial reactions to the film were dramatic. The general public was clearly outraged and a large number of the U.S.’s top news outlets (including The New York Times, The Observer, The Sun, and The Guardian) were strongly supportive of the film and freely gave it’s content high reviews.

SeaWorld’s reaction was also (understandably) dramatic. Indiewire.com reporter Bryce Renninger compiled an article that laid out 8 of SeaWorld’s (alleged many) discrepancies with the material included in the 83 minute long film.

After keeping mum for some time, this past Saturday, SeaWorld released a list of eight problems they had with the film through film publicity outfit 42West. The list of issues with the film came addressed to “film credits” with the subject line “A dishonest movie.” SeaWorld’s assertions were introduced by saying, “Although ‘Blackfish’ is by most accounts a powerful, emotionally-moving piece of advocacy, it is also shamefully dishonest, deliberately misleading, and scientifically inaccurate. As the late scholar and U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted: ‘You are entitled to your opinion. But you are not entitled to your own facts’” (Renninger, 2013).

The publics involved in this case were vast: SeaWorld’s staff, employees, business partners, and patrons; the independent film community. This doesn’t even include the 700,000+ subscribers to the New York Times who were exposed to this headlining review of the film written by Jeannette Catsoulis that stated “Through the rueful voices of former trainers and whale experts, a narrative driven by disillusion and regret unfolds as the trainers point to a gap between SeaWorld’s public image and behind-the-scenes reality.”

Not only was SeaWorld exposed in a horrific and gruesome light to sponsors, associates, and the over 11 million families that visit its facilities yearly (Barkham, 2013), the plot thickened when SeaWorld enlisted the help of film publicity outlet 42West and officially released 8 discrepancies with the film. Though 42West is self-proclaimed as “the largest independently-owned public-relations firm in the entertainment industry” (42West, 2013), the statements they facilitated on behalf of SeaWorld responding to the movie were awkward (and somewhat petulant) and suggested that SeaWorld had not carefully watched or properly analyzed the film.

The issue seemed to be that SeaWorld was continuing to hide the (already exposed) truth-a big PR no-no, and that after their release- they were ‘schooled’ by the thorough research done by Blackfish crew who rejected all 8 assertions (Renninger, 2013). SeaWorld’s medium-42West-produced poor research and their message was an unprofessional linguistic mess.
One positive strategy that SeaWorld implemented was allowing their Vice President of Communications, Fred Jacobs, to answer interview questions with CNN. Jacobs’ answers were satisfying and professional and humble-although he did not plead guilty on Blackfish’s charges (CNN, 2013).

It is still too early to tell if the public relations strategies for SeaWorld were effective, although the L.A. Times did report that “In its latest financial report, SeaWorld Entertainment reported attendance of 10.1 million in its 11 parks in the first half of the year, down from 10.7 million in the same period in 2012” (Martin, 2013). The article said that Fred Jacobs believes the movie has had “no effect” on the decrease in attendance.

Overall, I think that this public relations campaign was scattered, unclear, and poorly executed. If all of the accusations of Blackfish are true, SeaWorld needs to seriously re-evaluate their unethical practices. If the accusations are not true, SeaWorld needs to be transparent and show the publics that they are running a safe and whale-friendly business. If part of the film is honest and the part is deceptive, SeaWorld should own up to the harsh claims and offer to change their whale gathering and training strategies. How much more of a lovable organization would SeaWorld be if they took advantage of the ‘Save the Wales’ campaign and joined righteous forces with the environmental justice groups? But, then again… that may thwart their whole ‘using majestic and precious wildlife as entertainment’ business.

Note: This case study has included the public relations efforts of SeaWorld after the release of Blackfish-not their public response to the death of Dawn Brancheau.

References:

42West. (2013). 42West Public Relations Website. Retrieved from: http://www.42west.net/about.html
Barkham, P. (2013, December 10). Blackfish, SeaWorld and the backlash against killer whale theme park shows. The Guardian. Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/dec/11/blackfish-seaworld-backlash-killer-whales
Blackfish Movie. (2013). Blackfish Official Film Site. Retrieved from: http://blackfishmovie.com/about
Catsoulis, J. (2013, July 13). Do Six-Ton Captives Dream of Freedom?: ‘Blackfish,’ a Documentary, Looks Critically at SeaWorld. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/19/movies/blackfish-a-documentary-looks-critically-at-seaworld.html
CNN. (2013, October 28). SeaWorld responds to questions about captive orcas, ‘Blackfish’ film. CNN U.S. Retrieved from: http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/21/us/seaworld-blackfish-qa/
Martin, Hugo. (2013, August 29). Is ‘Blackfish’ documentary hurting SeaWorld attendance? The LA Times. Retrieved from: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/aug/29/business/la-fi-mo-is-seaworld-attendance-20130829
Renninger, B. (2013, July 15). SeaWorld Unleashes 8 Assertions about ‘Blackfish’ and Filmmakers Respond. Indiewire. Retrieved from: http://www.indiewire.com/article/seaworld-unleashes-8-assertions-about-blackfish-and-filmmakers-respond

Zimmerman, T. (2010, July 30). The Killer in the Pool. Outside Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.outsideonline.com/outdoor-adventure/nature/The-Killer-in-the-Pool.html?page=all

 

 

Written by Amy E. Pittman for Dr. J. Carstens’ Public Relations class on March 12, 2014

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